The Teacup Can Mislead Even a Tea Expert!

Why are we sort of gratified when we hear about experts being stymied?

Is it because we find certain experts somewhat intimidating, or irritatingly self-assured, and so we enjoy seeing the playing field leveled for once? Is it because sometimes we feel that our own opinions are just as valid as that “expert” one?

Watching videos of tea experts can be either enlightening or a tad intimidating, depending on how exacting the expert is and on how well that aligns with our own level of experience. We can start second-guessing ourselves.

Are we using the wrong brewing vessel? Are we drinking the wrong teas? Are we deficient by not knowing the correct terms—or how to pronounce them?

blue and white cup

Really, drinking tea shouldn’t be difficult!

Yet spend a little time on Reddit or read certain blog posts and some of us might feel like we don’t know anything at all.

But take heart!

  • First, sometimes the experts really can’t tell what they’re drinking.
  • And second, a million factors influence what you taste in your cup so your own opinion is never wrong!

A recent study illustrates these points.

A dozen tea experts were each given tea in the following cup shapes, and then were asked to rate the tea.

cup shapes

Now the point of the experiment was to assess the impact of teacup size and shape on perception of tea. After all, as the authors argue,

in a tea ceremony, the vessel not only serves as a carrier of tea, but also undertakes the function of social interaction, the educational function of aesthetic cultivation, and the integration of added value to the taste and interpretation of tea. (Yang et al. 2019)

That’s certainly a lot of pressure on a teacup!

But as I’ve mentioned in many earlier posts, the teacup—its color, composition, shape—does impact how you perceive the tea.

In this particular study, all cups were made of white porcelain so that cup material, thickness of cup wall, and color were not factors. Rather, it was solely the cup shape and size that were being assessed.

So of course we’d expect the experts to quickly realize that every cup had the exact same tea.

But that wasn’t the fact!

Granted, the study involved only twelve experts, but only two of them figured out that they were drinking the same tea in every cup!

One expert had wondered whether the same tea might have been used, while the other nine were “surprised” that all cups held the same tea.

Further,

a teacher of the tea ceremony would not believe this fact and insisted the contents were different after sampling them again. One of the tea critics, despite knowing they contained the same tea, maintained that the five cups contained different taste, bitterness, astringency, and sweet aftertaste after carefully sampling them again. (Yang et al. 2019)

Like I said above,

  • sometimes the experts really can’t tell what they’re drinking, and
  • so many factors influence what you taste in your cup that, in the end, if you like what you’re tasting, you’re fine!

But of course, the study’s intended focus was how cup size and shape impacted the perceived quality of tea, which it clearly did!

Not surprisingly, cup A—shallow and wide—allowed both heat and aroma to dissipate too quickly, which diminished the tea. The tallest cup, E, was the preferred vessel, perceived as giving the “strongest taste, bitterness, astringency, and sweet aftertaste.”

The depth of a cup not only impacts heat retention, but it also determines how the aroma hits your nose. How the liquid slides into your mouth and over your tongue. How the cup feels in your hands.

teacups 1cup shapes, mine

Drinking tea is multi-sensory. We hear it being poured, we smell it, we feel the cup in our hands and the liquid in our mouths, we see both cup and liquid, we taste it. Of these, the visual is apparently the most important.

According to statistics, visual cues account for 87% of sensory information. (Yang et al. 2019)

We also have many tactile receptors on our nose, lips, and fingertips—all of which are involved in drinking tea.

Therefore, the teacup matters way more than we might’ve guessed.

And the authors point out that having the optimal cup may be increasingly important as our environment degrades and tea quality falters. Yang and colleagues go so far as to say that “if we want to achieve better results from the limited output of the earth, we have to change the design and consumption of drinking vessels,” including making sure that the manufacturing processes of tea ware are also sustainable and environmentally sound.

hands with cupDrinking tea, however, like anything else we do in life, isn’t done in a vacuum. It involves past associations and memory. We soak in our environment. The social aspect looms large. Emotions are involved.

All these things—in addition to what our teacup provides—get transferred to that cup of tea and how we experience it.

So yes, learn more about tea if you’re interested, because knowledge only enhances experience and appreciation. But don’t worry too much about doing things “wrong” because as long as you like your results, who cares what the experts think!


Source: Yang, S., L. Peng, and L. Hsu, “The influence of teacup shape on the cognitive perception of tea, and the sustainability value of the aesthetic and practical design of a teacup,” Sustainability, 12/4/19.

2 thoughts on “The Teacup Can Mislead Even a Tea Expert!

    1. It’ll be interesting to see what results they get when they expand this study. I think this would be such a fun experiment to do, and then they could test each size and shape with different materials, and different colors. It would be fascinating to see if there is a specific color/shape/size/material that’s appreciably better than others. But then they’d have to do this for each tea type. This could be a career-long endeavor!

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